Discover Japanese Sake in Sapporo – Tour a Brewery and a Liquor Shop

SAPPORO

2024.02.23

As you may know, Hokkaido is one of the best-known places in Japan for the variety of delicious food available, such as fresh seafood, meats, vegetables and dairy products, etc. Perhaps you should try the local drinks as well, most of which combine exquisitely with Hokkaido cuisine. It is said that there is no love sincerer than the love of not only local food but also local drinks. If you enjoy them, you will surely fall in love with Hokkaido.

And since you’re in Japan, the first thing you should taste is Japanese sake.

Sake broadly refers to fermented and filtered products made from rice, rice-koji and water, including those produced overseas. Koji is a kind of mold and its enzymes transform starch into glucose. In the case of sake, rice is steamed and planted with koji spores that have been cultivated in advance and propagated.

The term ‘Japanese sake’ is limited to sake made from rice produced in Japan and brewed in Japan, and has been protected as a geographical indication since 2015.

In terms of rice, Hokkaido is now a leading producer of high-quality, tasty rice, on a par with Niigata Prefecture, which is a traditional rice-producing region, and three main types of sake rice are also grown in Hokkaido.

Three types of sake rice – Ginpu or Fragrant Breeze, Suisei or Comet, and Kitashizuku or Northern Drop – are grown throughout Hokkaido. The lower the protein value of sake rice, the higher the quality, and Hokkaido sake rice boasts a lower protein value. The protein component is mainly found on the outside of the rice and is responsible for giving sake a bitter and acrid taste. Recently the number of sake breweries that prefer to use Hokkaido sake rice has been increasing year by year, not only in Hokkaido but also throughout the rest of Japan.

As for water, roughly 20% of the components of sake are alcohol, sugars and amino acids, while the remaining approximately 80% is water. Good quality water is essential for producing good quality sake. Hokkaido has many mountains, forests and lakes. After a long period of time, the water becomes subsoil water and gushes out from the ground. This water is used to make good sake in Hokkaido. This water used for sake contains moderate amounts of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium, which are nutrients for micro-organisms and stimulate the growth of the yeast and koji. On the other hand, iron is the most undesirable component from a sake brewing perspective, even if it is not a problem from a food safety point of view. Iron not only gives sake a brown hue, making it visually unattractive, but also impairs its aroma.

Yeast is not the main ingredient in sake but plays a very important role. Yeast for sake brewing originally existed naturally, and once sake brewing began, yeasts settled in the brewery and multiplied. The yeasts that live in the brewery accentuate the characteristics of the sake brewed there, while the presence of less favorable yeasts can destabilize the quality of the sake. The Brewing Society of Japan therefore collected the best yeast strains from all over the country to improve the quality of sake, and distributes them to the various breweries on request. Today, each brewery decides whether to use the brewer’s own yeast or the distributed one.

Japanese sake now enjoys a global reputation since UNESCO designated Washoku, the traditional dietary culture of Japan, as an intangible cultural heritage.

The registration of “Japanese food” covers the entire traditional food culture of the country.

Japanese cuisine has four main characteristics.

1) Respect for diverse, fresh ingredients and their flavors

Japan is a long island nation from north to south and has expressive nature, with oceans and mountains, which means a wide variety of locally produced ingredients are used in every region. In addition, cooking techniques and tools have been developed to make the most of the flavors of the ingredients.

 

2) Nutritional balance to support a healthy diet

The Japanese dietary style based on one soup and three dishes is said to have an ideal nutritional balance. In addition, the diet is low in animal fats and oils through the skillful use of ‘umami’, which helps Japanese people to live longer and prevent obesity.

3) Expressions of natural beauty and seasonal changes

Another feature of the dining experience is the expression of the beauty of nature and the changing seasons. This is achieved by decorating dishes with seasonal flowers and leaves, and using seasonal furnishings and utensils.

 

4) Close relationship with annual events such as the New Year

Japanese food culture has been nurtured in close association with annual events. Sharing food, a blessing of nature, and spending time together over meals has strengthened family and community ties.

Obviously the number of Japanese restaurants is on the rise all over the world. In addition, French and other cuisines have started adopting some culinary techniques of Washoku, and their restaurants now include sake in their wine lists as well.

As sake is a very unique drink, let us tell you a little bit more about it.

Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage like wine and beer. It is made mainly from rice. The fermentation processes for the three beverages have different patterns. In the case of wine, the process is very simple. The yeast transforms the glucose in grapes into alcohol. This is called simple fermentation. In the case of beer, the enzymes in the barley germ work to break down the starch into glucose first. Then added yeast starts the fermentation. So you can see that the two steps occur independently. This is called multiple sequential fermentation. In the case of sake, the two steps occur in parallel. The starch contained in steamed rice is converted to glucose by koji enzymes and yeast starts its fermentation at the same time. This is called multiple parallel fermentation. As mentioned earlier, koji is a kind of mold that plays a tremendous role in making sake. So as you can see, the brewing of sake is more complex than that of wine or beer.

Japanese sake undergoes a complex brewing process, including fermentation, and is said to be highly dependent on the brewers’ technical skills. However, differences in the variety of rice used as a raw material, and the water, soil and climate, etc. are still reflected in flavor and taste. The quality of Japanese sake has also been refined by the tastes and customs of the local people and its pairing with the local cuisine. In this sense, Japanese sake, like wine, is rich in diversity according to terroir, and local sake can be enjoyed locally in different parts of Japan.

In the latter half of the 1800’s, Hokkaido produced almost no rice, and sake had to be imported from Honshu, the main island of Japan. Later, when sake brewing in Hokkaido started, it required the import of not only rice, but also koji and brewing equipment, and the quality of the sake was not good at that time. In addition, as major producers in Honshu of mass-produced sake entered the growing Hokkaido market more aggressively, the Hokkaido sake industry suffered drastically. But a “local sake boom”occurred throughout the country later. This was a turning point for sake produced in Hokkaido. Now it has 14 Japanese sake breweries making high-quality sake with high-quality rice grown in Hokkaido. To be more precise, Kamikawa Taisetsu has breweries located in Kamikawa, Obihiro and Hakodate respectively, bringing the total number of breweries to 16.

Furthermore, please remember that there are several types of sake. High-end sake is categorized as “tokutei-meisho-shu” or “specially designated sake”, of which there are eight types. We recommend you try a variety of types whose names include the words “ginjo” and/or “junmai”. “Ginjo” means highly polished white rice is used which produces a distinctive fragrance. “Junmai” means its ingredients are only rice and koji.

Last but not least, you can enjoy sake at a wide range of serving temperatures, from frozen and chilled sake to warmed sake heated up to 55°C. You can enjoy different aromas and tastes from the same sake according to the temperature. When well-heated, it tends to have a rich aroma, a fuller flavor and a mellower feel.

In light of the above, the pairing of sake and Japanese cuisine is also important.

The world-famous taste of umami was discovered by the Japanese and is based on dashi or soup stock, the basic ingredient of Japanese cuisine. Whereas Western bouillon contains more than 10 amino acids, Japanese kombu kelp and dried bonito flakes broth mostly contains only four amino acids, including glutamic acid. On the other hand, many types of amino acids are also contained in ingredients such as vegetables and fish, but the amino acids in the broth itself are fewer, so it can be said that this allows the natural flavor of the ingredients to come through.

Sake contains amino acids that give it sweetness, umami, acidity and bitterness, which are thought to synergize with the amino acids found in Japanese cuisine to add depth to the taste.

Many things that go well with wine go well with sake, but there are many things that go well with sake that do not go well with wine.

The synergistic effect of the sake makes the dish more delicious. The elements of the sake mellow it, and the sake compensates for what the dish lacks.

As a brand-new sake expert, you are now ready to savor sake during your trip! First of all, seeing is believing. Please enjoy the different types of sake and Japanese cuisine.

Must-visits in Sapporo !

Nippon Seishu Brewery

As mentioned above, there are currently 16 sake breweries in Hokkaido, but Sapporo is home to Nippon Seishu Brewery, famous for its sake brand Chitose Tsuru.

The neat, smart appearance of the tancho (red-crowned crane), which lives in Hokkaido, is regarded as a symbol of Japanese beauty. The brewery has chosen it as their symbol and named their brand Chitose Tsuru. “Chitose” means “a thousand years” and “tsuru” means “crane”. The crane has long been revered in Japan as a symbol of longevity.

In 1872, the founder Shibata Yojiuemon, who came from Ishikawa Prefecture, opened a sake brewery on the banks of the Soseigawa River in the center of Sapporo. He is regarded as the pioneer who opened the door to Hokkaido’s sake brewing industry. The brewery has since made efforts to improve quality and has developed steadily.

After the Second World War, supported by the booming economy, production of Chitose Tsuru increased steadily. In 1959, construction was completed on the largest sake brewery in Japan at the time, the Tanchogura, and three years later the brewery began exporting overseas. Later, the company expanded its base of operations to the main island of Honshu and, with the era of rapid economic growth, it began to expand its wings and take flight.

Chitose Tsuru also won consecutive gold medals at the National New Sake Competition, making its name known throughout the country as a famous Hokkaido brand of sake.

Along with rice, water is the main ingredient of sake, accounting for 80% of the total as mentioned earlier. The water Chitose Tsuru has been using is the riverbed water of the Toyohira River, which originates from the lush green mountains in the southern part of Sapporo. River water seeps into the ground and slowly moves downstream over a period of 100 or 200 years. The water passes through bedrock layers and absorbs minerals from the ground as it is filtered. The brewing water is the lifeblood of Chitose Tsuru. The characteristic firm core flavor of Chitose Tsuru is the result of this quality brewing water.

Chitose Tsuru uses mainly sake rice produced in Hokkaido. Production is supported by the contract farmers of Shin Totsukawa. The key to growing high-grade rice there is the clear river which flows nearby. The river’s clean water plays a role in rice production, as its former overflows have brought fertile soil from the mountains. In addition, good drainage allows fresh water to enter and percolate through the soil rapidly, supplying oxygen to the roots and speeding up the growth of the rice plants.

Of course, the people who are the brewers are also very important. Ichizawa-san is the sixth generation chief brewer and the first female chief brewer since the company was founded in 1872. She was born in Kushiro. She became interested in fermented foods when she was in high school and went on to study at the Junior College of Tokyo University of Agriculture, as it is the only college with a brewing department. Then she worked for a local beer company in the city after graduation. She then worked for a dairy manufacturer before joining the city’s Fukutsukasa Sake Brewery in 2002, where she learned the basics of sake brewing.

“I just like brewing sake”, she says, without being over-ambitious. What is important to her is teamwork with other brewers, and she stresses that “it is not a work of art created by me alone”. No matter how hard one person works in sake brewing, it is not possible to make good sake. When each individual gives 100%, the team as a whole gives 120%, and good sake is produced. It is the chief brewer’s job to bring out the best in each individual.

Her basic approach to sake making sounds great, and wouldn’t you like to drink more of the sake produced there? It is also interesting to compare Chitose Tsuru with the sake brewed by Fukutsukasa Sake Brewery since she was trained there.

Last year, Nippon Seishu rebuilt its sake brewery for the first time in 64 years. Production capacity was reduced due to sluggish consumption, but air-conditioning has made it possible to brew sake almost all year round; previously it was limited to the period from October to the following April. They also offer a tour of the new building where they brew Chitose Tsuru, though it is necessary to make reservations in advance. The sake shop next to the Chitose Tsuru brewery offers samples of brewed water and sake, and sells limited edition sake from the brewery and sake-flavored soft serve ice cream. They also have three brewery-owned pubs in the center of Sapporo as well. Enjoy local sake at local pubs to have a chic time there.

Yutaka, a Famous Sake Shop

While it is fun to compare different varieties of Chitose Tsuru, if you want to try or buy more Hokkaido sake, the first place you should visit is the famous sake shop Yutaka.

Yutaka cherishes the “human connections that sake brings from one person to another”. The motto of the shop is they want to convey not only the sake that goes back and forth, but also the heart that is there. They aim to create a warm atmosphere that can be enjoyed by everyone, even those who have never tried sake before. The shop has a selection of over 500 different types of sake, authentic shochu/distilled spirits across the country to wines and liqueurs.

Yutaka has started operating SAKE TRUCK mobile sake sales vans which are gaining popularity at event venues in Hokkaido. In addition to selling sake face-to-face, like at a bar, the trucks are equipped with a refrigerator for storage, enabling them to offer fresh sake. Yutaka’s Carlin Kumada said he wanted to offer the best drinks anytime, anywhere.

Here is some more information about Carlin-san.

He is a senior managing director at Yutaka. With his knowledge of sake and language skills, he is involved in sake sales not only in Hokkaido but also abroad. He was born in Napa Valley, California, USA, a major wine-producing region. When he was a university student, he visited Sapporo on a trip and had his first taste of Hokkaido sake at a sake bar run by his future wife, Rie-san. He was struck by how fruity it was, even though it was made entirely from rice.

Fascinated by sake, he came to Hokkaido every time he had a long holiday. He helped Rie-san’s parents with their family business, Yutaka. When they got married, he longed to work in the sake industry. Then Rie-san’s father asked him if he would like to work for them, so he quit his university studies in the US and came to Japan at the age of 23.

He tasted sake to learn about its characteristics almost every day for nearly four years. Although he had a good sense of taste and smell, he had difficulty in expressing the taste in Japanese. He visited workshops at sake breweries and the National Tax Administration to compare his own taste buds with the lecturers’ explanations and hone the way he expressed how he experienced the taste. Since 2011, he has served as a judge in the sake category at the International Wine Challenge, the world’s leading wine competition.

In addition to Carlin-san, there are also English-speaking staff at Yutaka who will be happy to help you with any questions you have about sake, etc., and you can also do tasting there.

Finally, here is a brief introduction to Hokkaido’s sake breweries with their leading brands, other than Nippon Seishu in Sapporo. They all make delicious sake, and you can try to experience all of them, including tastings, during your trip to Hokkaido!

1) Hakodate Jozo: GOHHOU

2) Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzo: GORYONOKURA

3) Niseko Shuzo: Niseko

4) Tanaka Shuzo: Takaragawa

5) Kunimare Shuzo: Kunimare

6)Kobayashi Shuzo: Kitanonishiki

7) Kinteki Shuzo: Kinteki

8) Takasago Shuzo: Kokushimuso

9) Godo Shusei: Taisetsunokura

10) Otokoyama: Otokoyama

11) Michizakura Shuzou: Michizakura

12) Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzo: RHOKKYUGURA

13) Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzo: HEKIUNGURA

14) Fukutsukasa Shuzo: Fukutsukasa

15) Usui Katsusaburo Store: Kitanokatsu

Note: “Shuzou” and “Shusei” both mean “Japanese sake brewery”.

Finally, I am sure you, like everyone else, are thinking the same as me.

We are just waiting for the moment when we can exclaim, with joy welling up from the depths of our hearts, “Come on, we can drink Japanese sake tonight!”